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Uncomfortable truths

By Dilan Thampapillai - posted Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Scott McIntyre tweeted on the Saturday. He was fired on the Sunday. SBS then released a statement which read in part "SBS supports our Anzacs". There was no acknowledgement in the statement that there might be some truth in McIntyre's twitter comments. It has since emerged that a text from Malcolm Turnbull, the Minister for Communications, alerted SBS management to McIntyre's tweets. Turnbull himself tweeted that McIntyre's comments were "despicable".

What did McIntyre say that was so bad? McIntyre first tweeted that Anzac Day was, "the cultification of an imperialist invasion of a foreign nation that Australia had no quarrel with is against all ideals of modern society." He then tweeted, "Wonder if the poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers pause today to consider the horror that all mankind suffered." He tweeted, "Remembering the summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by these 'brave' Anzacs in Egypt, Palestine and Japan." McIntyre then made remarks on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII.

In his tweets McIntyre suggested that the sanitised version of the Anzacs that is remembered today bears little resemblance to the realities of WWI. In that sense, what McIntyre wrote is not completely inaccurate.


Many of the Anzac soldiers stationed in Egypt during WWI regarded the locals as racially inferior. This attitude influenced their behaviour towards the Egyptian population and there were numerous instances of mistreatments of the locals. These included acts of assault, rape, murder and theft. Suzanne Brugger's book Australians and Egypt, contains accounts of the harassment and violence that some of the Anzac troops meted out to the Egyptians. While the criminality was not systematic the British authorities were ineffective in policing it, thereby stoking the resentment of the local population.

During WWII there were incidents where Australian soldiers killed Japanese soldiers instead of letting them surrender or killed them shortly after capture. General Paul Cullen, an Australian officer serving in Kokoda, described these killings with regret, stating that they were "not uncommon".

McIntyre's sacking was discussed on Monday night's Q and A program on the ABC. It says something about the way in which the Anzacs have been deified in recent times that none of the politicians could bring themselves to admit that some Anzacs had committed war crimes. Both Arthur Sinodinos and Tanya Plibersek looked decidedly uncomfortable in discussing the issue. Plibersek even avoided dealing directly with the issue when Tony Jones asked her whether McIntyre had overstepped the mark in his comments on Anzac war crimes.

Monash historian, Carolyn Holbrook, avoided the issue altogether, focusing instead on McIntyre's characterisation of those who commemorate Anzac Day and his unfortunate use of the word 'terrorism' in describing Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Holbrook struggled to accept that the Gallipoli attack was an invasion. One would hope that a historian would have the sense to understand that when foreign troops attack a sovereign nation, the situation can properly be construed as an invasion.

Holbrook could not even bring herself to directly acknowledge that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a war crime. While the bombings have little direct relevance to the Anzacs, it is uncontroversial that the direct targeting of civilians is a war crime.


McIntyre may have had a point in remarking on the 'imperialist' attack on Turkey. The defeat of the Ottoman Empire did result in some of its former possessions becoming a part of the British Empire, and thereby subject to the strict racial hierarchy within the Empire. At the time of WWI both Billy Hughes and Alfred Deakin stated that Australia's reasons for going to war were to keep Australia, "white and free". Notably, in modern narratives the 'white' part of that ethos seems to have been quietly dropped.

The British Empire that the Anzacs served is not favourably remembered by many of its former subjects. It expropriated significant wealth from its colonial subjects, delayed the development of useful national institutions and left a legacy of division and mistrust. Though they should be evaluated in the context of the times in which they lived, the Anzacs did fight in service of that Empire.

It can hardly be surprising then that some modern Australians might regard Anzac Day with a degree of coolness. This might be particularly true of those Australians from non-Anglo-Celtic backgrounds.

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About the Author

Dilan Thampapillai is a lecturer with the College of Law at the Australian National University. These are his personal views.

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